Going into the World Baseball Classic, Shohei Ohtani was the biggest star on the Japanese team, if not the entire tournament. On Monday night, the two-way Los Angeles Angels superstar was content to play a vital supporting role.
Ohtani went 2-for-4 and had a hand in two rallies, including the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth, that gave the Samurai Japan a dramatic 6-5 victory over Mexico in the semifinals in Miami, setting up a highly anticipated championship clash with the United States.
"We knew it wouldn't be an easy win, but we never expected a game like this," Ohtani said in a TV interview on the field after the game.
Ohtani, limited to batting duty after pitching in the quarterfinal victory over Italy on Thursday, drew a two-out walk in the seventh inning that set up a three-run homer by the Boston Red Sox's Masataka Yoshida that tied the game at 3-3.
Then with Japan's back to the wall and trailing by one run in the ninth inning, he led off with a double into the gap in right-center field. He would score the tying run, followed closely by pinch-runner Ukyo Shuto of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks with the winning run, when Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami delivered a clutch double off the center field wall.
It was as total a team effort as Japan could have put together, as manager Hideki Kuriyama made wide use of his bench, including using all three of the catchers on the roster.
"The pitchers were having a hard time and the opponent was batting great. We kept trying to put something together and in the end, that's how we won," said Ohtani, who is batting .450 in the tournament.
Murakami had been particularly struggling at the plate all tournament, and was hitless in four at-bats -- with three strikeouts -- earlier in the game.
Asked if he has any words for Murakami now, Ohtani replied, "He was struggling, but he was practicing more than anyone else, and I knew he would get a hit. I thought if I got on base, we would score at least one run. I knew [either of] the two guys [Yoshida and Murakami] behind me would get a hit."
In the ninth, Ohtani drilled the first pitch he saw from Mexican right-hander Giovanny Gallegos. Arriving at second base, he thrust his hands into the air and let out a roar.
"I thought a walk would have been alright, so I was only going to go after an easy pitch," Ohtani said. "I had decided that I was definitely going to get on base, and it was big that I made it to second base."
With the victory, Japan has a chance to regain the title it last won in 2009 when it faces the United States in the same Miami stadium on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning Japan time.)
"It's the biggest team on the biggest stage, so I'll go into it looking to have fun. Naturally, there will be nerves, but we are all strongly determined to win."
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